In an online milieu where everyone markets themselves, net artists have made selling out its own medium
In the Atkins-diet-crazed early aughts, a Portland-based ad agency thought it would be cool to hire young artists to come up with names for a new low-carb Coca Cola. Miranda July suggested the elegant and simple “C2." Because Coke used the name, July later got a check in the mail for $25,000.
As the marketplace has been radically fractured, so has the consensus on what’s an appropriate degree of “selling out.” It's not enough to have brands to have one ad campaign for everybody these days. Thanks in part to the Internet, audiences have fractured into smaller and smaller groups, and soft drink and credit card companies create niche campaigns to specific segments of the splintered marketplace. Advertisers are knocking on the door of artists most Dads have never even heard of: Grimes for American Express; Tyler the Creator for Mountain Dew.
You might think you have the “fuck the Man” attitude, but it can be tough sometimes to know who you should be giving the middle finger to in a world where Kashi is owned by Kellogg's. A few years ago, Miami artists Jillian Mayer and Lucas Leyva made a music video for their friend's garage band, The Jacuzzi Boys, in which vagina lips sing along to the song. They did the whole thing for a couple hundred dollars provided by the band's indie record label and even returned the lights they used to Walmart after the shoot. With googly eyes and body paint, the singing vaginas were made into characters, some of them trademarks like Homer Simpson, Jabba the Hutt, and Ronald McDonald. When the label asked that they omit these characters in a re-edit, it became clear that the guys running the label, despite the stripes and glasses on them, weren't indie at all. Their label was a subsidiary of Sub Pop, which is owned by Warner. Mayer and Leyva concluded that at the end of the day, the label was “indie when they pay you, corporate when they fuck you.”
In an environment where you’ve always already sold out, the question isn’t whether, it’s how. The decision of whether to sell out used to be more ideological than personal—scenes like the Lower East Side in the 1970s and Seattle in the 1990s were founded on, among other things, a fiercely commercial-free ethos. Maybe I’m romantically projecting a halo glow onto the unwashed tribes of yesteryear, but whether or not people betrayed the ideals, at least there was a consensus about what betrayal looked like. Today literary journals (like this one) have to bicker internally over whether or not to exchange some corporate logos for free booze.
If an artist does a good enough job with their online brand, larger brands might want to link up, start some brand-to-brand flirtation. Artists are happy to flirt back. Much of the art circulating online is a response to artists’ living in a world full of brands, micro and macro. Often it co-opts logos and branded products in the spirit of irreverent social commentary. Jon Rafman appropriated the Kool Aid man as his tour guide of Second Life. Cory Arcangel exhibited an Applebees giftcard. Jason Harvey reimagined logos like Subway and the New York Knicks. Brad Troemel uses Doritos and Hot Topic hair extensions in the ready-mades he sells on Etsy. Amanda Schmidt wore only Abercrombie & Fitch for an entire year.
But along the way, appropriating brands has lost its teeth and become just a #trending aesthetic. Last fall, I showed up to a rave at a basement in Soho, complete with folding table overflowing with sponsored booze. I couldn't tell if the girl there in a Monster T-shirt was wearing it of her own volition or if there were free energy drinks somewhere.
Somewhere in the midst of the ironic appropriation of brands and brand strategy in net art, the whole idea of “selling out” became anachronistic. Now that it’s common to see corporate logos and brands in art, getting paid for it doesn’t seem as big of a deal.
It’s in this ecosystem of post-sponsorship that artist Ryder Ripps did a performance sponsored by Red Bull last spring. In the Red Bull Music Academy’s office, Ripps wore a karate gi adorned with the Red Bull logo and kept a tally of Red Bulls consumed and ideas generated. He tweeted them from his personal twitter account, tagging them with the name of his “residency”: #hypercurrentliving.
Ripps and Red Bull is the epitome of artist-brand collaborations in this current climate of splintered demographics and personal branding. Ripps is niche. He’s an Internet artist and web designer. And while he has fewer than 5000 followers on Twitter, he’s got clout in his sphere. He co-founded the real-time image-sharing site Dump FM and he’s one-third of OK Focus, the commercial web-design firm best known for pranks like whodat.biz, the fake Kanye design company site that won them a cease-and-desist letter.
Ripps’s Red Bull tweets were in line with his Internet alt-bro Jerry Seinfeld personal brand. They were mostly ideas for wacky products, real and virtual, rife with observational humor, returning over and over again to Internet addiction (“chic bedpans for bloggers”; “a harness for your body so u can walk around with your laptop as u skype”), commentary on high and low culture (“bronze pokemon”; “a taco bell for rich people where no poor people are allowed and everything costs way more money”), the Internet (“a face wash for lonely girls online made out of kitten tears” and “gif of robocop eating salsa”), and, of course, Red Bull (“a waterbed made out of red bull”).
On his Livejournal, Ripps claimed that the company was initially apprehensive of the art project being so explicitly about Red Bull:
Ironically, the more the piece had to do with Red Bull as a liquid/product, the more weary they were to give me the green light. I think originally it seemed strange to them that I would want to unabashedly integrate the brand so heavily into my art — they thought maybe I was doing it because i felt somehow obligated to, or perhaps it was i was being sarcastic/making fun of the brand. Neither of which are the case.
Ripps goes on to insist that his interest in Red Bull is genuine. The point of his project, he wrote, is that he’s interested in the way that we generate content just to get likes and faves and how the caffeinated beverage “aids this modern mode of production.”
If he is only interested in art on uppers, then why doesn’t Ripps just use a no-name brand of energy drink — or amphetamines for that matter? Michael Connor, writing for Rhizome, proposes that “Ripps' performance suggests a fascination with the power of branding and an interest in working with brands and embodying their ‘values,’ while also developing a brand of his own.” It's in line with Ripps's irreverent Internet bro personal brand to align himself with Red Bull, and vice versa for the energy-drink company.
In Ripps's project, the decision to work with a brand like Red Bull is not just inseparable from the content, this decision is the content of the performance. Selling out is a medium. Viewing it, we are less interested in asking why did he choose to let a brand sponsor the project and more interested in why and how did he choose to integrate Red Bull. The decision to brand or not is less about idealism and more about personal aesthetics, and Ripps admires Red Bull's athletic aesthetic, promoting extreme athletic endeavors — BMX riders, snowboarders, and literally killer stunts. To do art like an extreme sport, as Brad Troemel has argued (in a New Inquiry essay that Ripps once lamented in a tweet he wasn't mentioned in), so many young artists using social media are doing, Ripps gets himself branded like an athlete.
When corporate ties are pervasive, it's no longer about trying to avoid brands but instead about deciding which ones to associate with your personal brand. Even when there's nothing to gain, no free product or check with a string of zeros at stake, you still have to decide which email address to use and which platform to upload videos to. The Internet has made it easier to distribute a video or song, but it's also branded the means. Choosing Maxell over Sony cassettes isn't the same as choosing to upload to Soundcloud instead of Hulkshare.
The constant dance between artists’ brands and corporate brands has become a subject all to itself, not just a theme of Internet art but a creative medium as prevalent as the gif or selfie. Gucci spent millions making us know it's iconic, prestigious: Made in Italy. Radric Davis anointed himself Gucci Mane and said, Thank you very much, I'll be iconic and prestigious too. The rap trio Migos catapulted to stardom repeating “Versace” in a manner far too tactless for a tasteful luxury brand. But when the song took off, instead of suing, Donatella herself showed up in the music video. They used it on the runway. These relationships go back at least to Run DMC’s sneakers or Warhol’s soup, but the line between licensed and unlicensed appropriation has never been fuzzier.
But while this artist–corporate brand flirtation is nothing new, it's a new iteration that says something about us right now, just like soup cans said something about the factory-based manufacturing pervasive in Warhol's post-WWII era. Artists have long been interested in exploring a kind of crass commercialism. In the '90s, artist groups like the Bernadette Corporation imitated a corporate model. But in those models, the group's identity overshadowed the individual's. What were once anxieties that we'd become indistinguishable office-space drones without any souls are now anxieties that we are Web 2.0 worker bees without any pay. Crass commercialism has penetrated the decisions regarding our personal identities — and while it's most prevalent in our online lives as 21st century prosumers, there's a man who has literally sold his face as advertising space to feed his children.
But there's something else very particular about artists' current preoccupation with fast food and sugary drinks. While Gucci Mane and Migos are interested in hacking luxury brands, the largely white male net-art world is preoccupied with brands that evoke malls, mainstream culture, and middle-class America, just at the moment that it rapidly disappears.
The corporate half of the equation in sponsorship like Ripps and Red Bull has everything to do with this disappearing middle — call it Wawa nostalgia. Multinational corporations have caused the splintering of the middle by business models that exacerbate economic disparity and then they have to turn around and market to demographics that are radically fragmented. Selling out is an American Dream, but America is past its prime.